July 17, 2024

Creating an environment for effective learning measurement

Author: Ashley St. John
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I’ve spent most of my working career within the realm of professional education, focused on helping individuals achieve “yahoo!” moments in their lives through the attainment of industry-recognized licensures, designations and certifications. In this corner of the educational landscape, the measurement of learning efficacy boils down to a fundamental relationship between the credential and its ability to signal workplace competency, which ultimately unlocks new opportunities and improves the recipient’s lifetime earning power. In relative terms, the progression is simple: The learner does research (in consultation with mentors) and decides on the credential that fits with their career aspirations, fills any minimum requirement gaps, registers for the exam, studies a prescribed curriculum and passes the test. The process is deemed successful as doors open and pay and responsibility improve. Examples of industry-recognized credentials include CPA, CFA, PMP and a host of other acronyms.

In contrast, learning and development within an organization is more likely to be viewed as a cost and not an investment due to the lack of direct evidence that learning interventions lead to a demonstrable improvement in skill and competency for the learner or cohort and that skill improvement is tied to better organizational performance.

To solve this measurability challenge, L&D teams within organizations can adopt a process similar to the external credentialing market — with minor modifications. Companies should foster an environment where employees can:

  • Research and determine (in concert with their manager) the new skills that are necessary for career progression and/or continued work relevance.
  • Register for an internal or external program to acquire the identified skills.
  • Study a short, sharp curriculum with an emphasis on experiential learning.
  • Earn an internal badge or credential that maps to a “valuation rubric” once new skills are shown to be embedded into the individual or team’s workflow.

Note that the attainment of the credential itself is not a sufficient condition to determine return on educational investment. If learning is experiential, purposefully tied to a skill inventory that aligns with the company’s goals and objectives, and shown to be embedded back into the workplace, the link between learning and the economics of the business becomes much clearer. This link will rely on valuation rubrics that ascribe monetary and/or nonmonetary value to internal and external credentials. (I’ll explore the concept of valuation rubrics in a future article.)

Corporate training and the annual planning cycle

Corporate learning can be loosely divided into two categories: compliance training and skills development. Whereas compliance training is designed to mitigate risk and is measured through reductions in complaints, litigation and other compliance-related costs, training aimed at skills development is designed to improve service, sales, productivity, employee engagement and retention, and profitability. Here, we will focus our attention on skills training.

If people and teams represent your organization’s most valuable asset, aligning the capabilities of that asset with the goals of the company should rank among its top priorities. Unfortunately, decades of separation between learning, human resources, and the annual long-range planning and goal-setting cycle has resulted in a lack of investment in learning measurement and minimal effort applied to the development of business processes and structures that allow for effective learning measurement to occur.

To heal this rift, discussions around talent acquisition and development should take center stage throughout the annual goal-setting process. In this ideal world, leaders continually ask questions about the alignment of organizational talent with the near- and long-term goals of the business and make adjustments in real-time.

In reality, talent discussions routinely take a backseat to more tangible investments and economic relationships. Moreover, talent conversations are typically disconnected from the annual planning cycle. The result is a serious mismatch between organizational capability and expected outcomes. Time and space for learning new skills is not contemplated within the annual plan, and organizational performance is compromised as managers “make do” with an existing talent pool and skill portfolio that doesn’t align with business goals.

Changing the equation

One of the reasons learning takes a backseat to more tangible areas of the business is that it’s deemed to be unmeasurable. As a result, companies don’t invest what they should to maintain and grow their most valuable asset. Instead, learning is viewed as a cost and is the first thing to go when times get tough.

How can we align our actions and words with regard to our most valuable asset? How can we change the perception of learning and begin viewing it as an investment?

I believe we need to start with root cause: highly institutionalized, codified human capital processes and systems that are out of step with the planning and goal-setting process outlined above and that impede the creation of a straight line between learning and organizational performance.

The following is a high-level field guide of sorts to weave learning and skill development into the annual goal-setting process and the fabric of the business. The figure to the right provides a graphical depiction of the process.

Step 1. The long-range talent meeting

Several weeks after the long-range planning meeting is over, make time to bring together relevant stakeholders to build the long-range talent plan for the organization. Certainly, HR and learning leaders should be in attendance, but senior leaders from operations, technology, finance and product should also be there. To send a signal of the criticality of the meeting, the chief executive should also be involved and/or voice strong support for the process. The outcome of this session should be a talent demand map. This map is a picture showing the skills to be emphasized and those that will be deemphasized over the planning period and contemplates the lead times necessary to reskill and upskill existing staff or hire from the external market.

Step 2. Budget talent meetings (two sessions)

After first-pass departmental budgets have been submitted and rolled up by financial planning and analysis personnel, the first budget cycle talent meeting should occur. All senior executive stakeholders should be in attendance at this meeting so that hiring and reskilling/upskilling needs can be compared across departments, short-term talent development/acquisition plans can be rationalized with the long-range plan established in step 1, and resources are identified and receive funding for talent development (see step 3).

Prior to budget finalization and after second-round budgets have been rolled up, the same set of stakeholders should regroup to eliminate any remaining conflicts and ratify the next fiscal year’s talent plan. Elements of this plan include specific learning investments to upskill/reskill existing staff, timing and budget for new hires, and KPIs and milestones to achieve for plan acceleration or deceleration.

Step 3. Departmental talent meetings

After the budget is ratified by the board of directors (or similar governing body), the company’s talent plan is passed to the departmental level for refinement. It is in this series of meetings where the plan comes to life. Buy-in and drive from mid-level management is critical for the entire process to succeed. After all, this new process of talent identification will constitute tremendous change within your organization and effectively represents a mini reskilling revolution within your company.

In these sessions, departmental plans are established to ensure resources, time and space are available for cross-training, upskilling and reskilling. Also, the lowly job description gets a makeover and significantly increases in importance during this step. Over decades, the job description has turned into a risk-management document to help set pay bands and guide performance improvement plans for subpar performers. For learning measurement to have a chance in the future, job descriptions must be living documents that focus on the skill inventory and proportions necessary for success in a particular role. If “you are what you measure,” the KPIs, skill baselines and expected outcomes of a job role should be clear in a team member’s job description. Job descriptions should play a central role in talent management and learning measurement — not sit in digital drawers collecting cyber-dust.

4. The annual review meeting

The old-school annual review also gets a makeover and is repurposed as the “annual talent review and assessment.” Changing the intent of this meeting assumes the company has adopted a continuous coaching framework where performance feedback is given in real time throughout the year and done as close to the coalface of the work as possible. Instead, the annual review should be a time where the manager takes the outcomes of the departmental talent process in step 3 and works with individual contributors to communicate skill changes (both technical and behavioral) that are necessary over the coming year to ensure maximum alignment of the individual’s efforts to that of the team, department and, ultimately, the company’s annual goals and North Star. Each employee should know where their skills inventory and capabilities stand at the beginning of each year and have a clear line of sight to how they will make a difference moving forward.

5. After-action review meeting

Late in the first quarter or very early in the second quarter, HR, learning and other key stakeholders should meet to determine what’s working and what’s not and to formulate a plan for remediation. As Mike Tyson once famously said, “Everyone has a plan ‘til they get punched in the mouth.” The same holds true for your talent demand map, skills inventory and talent development plan. The reality of the work, shifts in consumer tastes and preferences, unexpected team conflict, new government regulation and new technologies can toss a wrench in the best of plans. The data collected in this AAR will be critical in the upcoming long-range planning meeting (back to step 1). Key outputs of the session are skills inventories at both the organizational and departmental levels.

Closing thoughts

I’ve long wondered why learning measurement is so incredibly difficult. I’ve also heard every excuse in the book about why effective learning measurement can’t be done within a corporate setting. I don’t buy it. Why can’t measurement of learning inside a business be as straightforward as the measurement of success in the professional education example I gave at the beginning of this article?

We’re currently staring one of the biggest reskilling revolutions in the face as we navigate through the Fourth Industrial Revolution. The university degree will still be important, but an individual’s inventory of skills will be a much more important signal of work readiness as we move forward. Shorter, sharper learning interventions that lead to specific skill attainment and stack toward more advanced credentials will become the norm and not the exception. The professional education model of learning measurement is an example of a structure that can be applied to measure the return on learning within organizations.

To get to the point where we can ascribe value to internally generated skill credentials and effectively measure the return to learning and upskilling:

  • Talent acquisition and development plans will need to be much more closely aligned with organizational planning cycles.
  • HR leaders will need to work much more closely with learning and operational leaders to ensure job descriptions are living documents.
  • Hiring rubrics will need to shift away from the degree as the primary signal of work readiness and toward the recognition of skill portfolios.
  • Ad hoc “education-as-a-benefit” programs that provide support for the achievement of university degrees to check arbitrary advancement boxes must be redesigned to align with hiring rubrics that center on skill portfolios versus degrees.
  • Colleges and universities will need to embrace competency-based educational models, college transcripts will need to shift toward experiential skill inventories, and accreditors will need to provide approval and support for the above.

If we truly embrace our people as our most valuable corporate asset, invest in them as we would to maintain and grow physical assets, and surround them with opportunities to acquire new skills that directly align with corporate goals, the return on learning investment will naturally find its place among our top business KPIs.

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